This Week’s Hot Reads: January 13, 2011

From a modern-day retelling of an ancient Indian epic to a famous country singer’s posthumous biography, five new books to check out.

Leela’s BookBy Alice Albinia

The British travel writer’s first novel satirizes India’s epic Mahabharata in present-day Delhi.

Imagine all the drama, sexual intrigue, and familial discord of the ancient Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, retold in modern times with a satirical twist. This is the premise of British author Alice Albinia’s fiction debut, Leela’s Book, in which Leela—worldly, alluring, and haunted—is moving from New York back to Delhi, decades after fleeing the country and her family. The occasion for her return is a wedding, and the groom’s father is none other than Vyasa, the Mahabharata’s legendary composer who has prayed upon Leela and her now-deceased sister Meera across various lifetimes (in his current incarnation, Vyasa is a misogynistic, egocentric professor famous for—go figure—his controversial interpretations of ancient texts). Enter the multi-armed elephant deity, Ganesh—the traditional scribe of the Mahabharata—who explains how Vyasa seduced, impregnated and wed Meera. As if there weren’t enough layers in this dizzying tale, we learn that Meera convinced Leela to go to bed with Vyasa, too, but the fallout from their incestuous tryst caused Leela to banish herself from India. Now she and Vyasa are reunited, and Ganesh, the “Remover of Obstacles,” has come up with a plan protect his heroine Leela and uncover Vyasa’s womanizing ways at the wedding. In Albinia’s parody, Ganesh has his own motivations—he claims he authored the original ancient text, and needs “to influence events, to get my errant characters back on track, to wrest control from Vyasa. And how to do that? Through my pen.” A compelling and wildly entertaining tale unfolds.

Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin BrothersBy Charlie Louvin, with Benjamin Whitmer

A posthumous autobiography from one half of the most influential country duet singers of our time.

Charlie and Ira Louvin comprised one of the best country duet acts to ever take a stage. They were arguably the most influential duet singers of modern times, as well as the composers of some of country’s most enduring classics (“You’re Running Wild,” “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” “When I Stop Dreaming”). Now, almost exactly a year since Charlie’s death at 83 (Ira died at 41 in a 1965 car crash), here comes his autobiography. Who knew this superb musician also had a great book in him? But pull it off he did (with the help of coauthor Benjamin Whitmer). This smart, salty, often very funny, and occasionally heartbreaking story has no dull pages. Charlie’s take on things is always shrewd and fair-minded enough to make you trust him on any subject, whether it’s their tough childhood (with the kids out in the cotton field alongside their stern father), the rise to membership in the Grand Ole Opry, or the rocky road they traveled even when they were successful (Ira—the only tenor singer Bill Monroe ever acknowledged as an equal [albeit after Ira had died]—had a hair-trigger temper and a bottomless thirst for alcohol). The title, by the way, comes from a gospel album the brothers once cut (containing, among other classics, the inimitable “The Angels Rejoiced” and “Are You Ready for That Great Atomic Power?”). Charlie’s publisher had the good sense to make that album’s iconic cover double as the cover for this book. You have to see it to believe it, and even then …

The OddsBy Stewart O’Nan

A spare, skillfully rendered novel about a loveless marriage—and a couple examining their worth to each other in the worst of times.

In recent works like his novel Emily, Alone, O’Nan has chronicled the lives of ordinary people grappling with life’s injustices—the loss of a job, a deteriorating relationship, shattered dreams. In The Odds, Art and Marion Fowler are about to declare bankruptcy and file for divorce when, on the eve of their 30th wedding anniversary, they head to Niagara Falls for Valentine’s Day weekend. At the hotel casino, they gamble what’s left of their savings and their marriage. O’Nan skillfully interweaves the couple’s inside jokes and familiar rituals with underlying resentments and nagging betrayals. As Art and Marion bet their lives at the roulette table, desperation becomes another routine, like ordering takeout and watching movies on a Friday night. While the subject matter is ostensibly banal (a marriage racked by tedium and infidelity), O’Nan makes it unordinary, so that drama and complexity emerge unexpectedly from the mundane. Even the novel’s kitschy backdrop—Niagara Falls, their honeymoon suite, the glittery casino—are rendered exotic through O’Nan’s pin-sharp prose.

God’s JuryBy Cullen Murphy

A lucid and scholarly new book on the Inquisition’s lasting influence.

“Say what you will about the Inquisition, but it was an unequivocal success in one respect: everyone knows its name,” writes Vanity Fair editor-at-large Cullen Murphy in his new book, God’s Jury. To most people, the Inquisition was a holy war fought during the Middle Ages, but Cullen argues that its influence is still widespread in the modern world. Established by the Catholic Church in 1231, the Inquisition lasted in one form or another for almost seven hundred years. Primarily associated with the persecution of heretics and Jews (mostly by burning at the stake), the Inquisition targeted numerous other groups, and its oppressive techniques (surveillance, censorship, and “scientific” interrogation) were in fact ahead of their time. It wasn’t long before its methods and mindset spread beyond the Church, adopted at Guantánamo detention camps, and embraced by the Third Reich. Engaging and scholarly, God’s Jury concludes that the “inquisitorial impulse” is in many ways “as robust as ever.” Because it stems fundamentally from “some vision of the ultimate good, some conviction about ultimate truth, some confidence in the quest for perfectibility,” Cullen warns that as long as there are righteous people in the world, the danger of widespread persecution will persist.

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FraternityBy Diane Brady

A tribute to the power of education, Fraternity examines a bitter moment in American history and how one man helped shape a generation of African-Americans.

Even as the civil-rights movement took hold in the U.S., the College of the Holy Cross and other private universities were hesitant to embrace diversity. But in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Rev. John E. Brooks—a progressive theology professor who was about to become dean at the school— made it his mission to recruit promising young African-American students to Worcester, Mass. As it turned out, Brooks’s recruits made history in more ways than one: among them were Eddie Jenkins, who played for the undefeated 1973 Miami Dolphins; Edward P. Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author The Known World; and Clarence Thomas, a future Supreme Court justice. Brady highlights how as students they developed interests and tendencies that marked their careers later in life: “Rarely did [Clarence] Thomas himself ever suggest an idea; he merely liked to shoot them down,” she writes. Jones, who wrote a column on social issues for the school newspaper, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for his novel about pre-Civil War Virginia (the book “had been unfolding in his mind since he learned about black slave owners in a class at Holy Cross.”) Like many of their fellow classmates, Thomas and Jones were clearly leaders, but would they be who they are today without Brooks’s influence? A tribute to the power of education, Fraternity examines a bitter moment in American history and one man’s determination to change its course.